Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in the debate on Bill C-338, which proposes to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to increase mandatory minimum penalties, or MMPs, of imprisonment for offences relating to the importation and exportation of certain drugs and substances.
I would like to begin by commending my hon. colleague across the way for bringing forward this private member's bill. It will encourage and foster an ongoing and important discussion regarding how we best regulate controlled substances.
Let me also say that I have been listening carefully to the debate on Bill C-338 and I would like to echo the political and legal concerns that have already been raised, including the constitutional implications of this bill.
To start, it strikes me as inappropriate to provide the same MMP for substances that have vastly different levels of potency and danger. It is exactly this type of situation that the Supreme Court of Canada has raised concerns about in recent cases in which it struck down MMPs. I refer the House to the Supreme Court of Canada case in Regina v. Muir, in which the court cited R v. Lloyd in stating that “mandatory minimum sentences that...apply to offences that can be committed in various ways, under a broad range of circumstances...are vulnerable to constitutional challenge.”
Although the bill targets the importation of powerful opiates like fentanyl and carfentanil that are lethal in very small quantities, the increased MMPs would also apply to other substances like cannabis. Hon. members will recall that the government has introduced Bill C-45 and Bill C-46 to address and introduce a new comprehensive regime so that we can keep cannabis out of the hands of our youth and vulnerable communities.
Although a highly regulated substance, cannabis simply does not share the devastating qualities of fentanyl for instance. Suffice it to say that such differences are material from a sentencing and charter perspective, so it does not make sense to treat these two substances in the same way.
That said, there is no doubt that the increasing prevalence of potent opioids in our communities has sparked a public health crisis in Canada.
The onslaught of this deadly epidemic in Canada is twofold. First, the overdose crisis has been driven by the emergence of these powerful illicit opioids on the black market, leading to an unprecedented number of deaths among illegal drug users. This unfortunate reality is exacerbated by vile and deceitful drug dealers who mix these incredibly cheap yet highly addictive and potent substances with other more expensive drugs, for instance heroin or cocaine, in an effort to maximize their profits. The relative ease with which these opioids can be produced further compounds these problems.
A secondary contributing factor has been the high levels of addiction to legal opioids across Canada. This trend has been caused in part by inappropriate prescribing practices and poor education on the risks associated with opioid use.
Unfortunately, once prescription renewals expire, many individuals turn to the black market to supply their addiction. The demand that emanates from legal opioid addiction helps fuel the demand for such substances on the black market.
To effectively respond to the opioid crisis in Canada both contributing factors must be addressed. This is partly why I have strong reservations about the approach proposed in Bill C-338. It proposes an unnecessary, costly, and likely ineffective approach to a complex drug problem. The bill is focused on increasing MMPs for offenders engaged in importing and exporting instead of focusing on the root causes of this epidemic.
Evidentiary support is simply lacking to suggest that increasing MMPs in the way proposed by the bill will reduce the influx of these lethal drugs into Canadian communities. In fact, research on the “war on drugs” in the United States reveals that increased penalties do little to deter high-level drug traffickers from engaging in this lucrative criminal conduct, nor do they do anything to help those battling addictions. Health and criminal justice experts assert that addressing the demand side is critical to comprehensively responding to complex social problems like these.
The import and export offences targeted by Bill C-338 are already punishable by a maximum term of life in prison. In Canada, this is the highest penalty a judge can impose. In my personal experience as a drug prosecutor, our judges consistently use their discretion to impose stiff penalties if and when they are warranted. In fact, courts around the country are already treating fentanyl trafficking very seriously.
For example, in a recent decision this year, Regina v. Fyfe, the judge imposed a total sentence of five years' imprisonment on a low level first-time fentanyl trafficker. I would point out that this is two more years than the mandatory minimum jail sentence proposed by this private member's bill. In the decision, the court noted that an appropriate sentence for fentanyl trafficking must be more serious than other hard drugs, for example cocaine, given the substantial risks posed by this and similar opioids.
Moreover, appellate courts across the country are revisiting sentencing ranges for those who traffic in these dangerous substances, noting that previous ranges are “out of sync” with the dangers these substances pose to society. I offer and commend to the House the case of Regina v. Smith, decided by the British Columbia Court of Appeal in 2017.
I will pause to note that it is important that we reaffirm the fundamental principle of the independence of the judiciary as that imparts a high degree of confidence among the public that the judiciary will do their job.
Let me be clear. We are talking about an unprecedented number of fatal drug overdoses in Canada. Our government fully understands the gravity of the situation, and we continue to take action to address the problem. The policies put in place to deal with this crisis need to be guided by performance measurement standards and evidence. These policies must have an immediate impact in order to reduce the number of tragic deaths.
That is why I am so pleased that our government has introduced a new Canadian drug and substances strategy. The strategy focuses on prevention, treatment, and enforcement, but it also reinstates harm reduction as a core pillar of Canada's drug policy. The strategy champions a comprehensive, collaborative, compassionate, and evidence-based approach to drug policy.
To further advance this strategy, the Minister of Health introduced Bill C-37, an act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and to make related amendments under other acts. Together, these will address the serious and pressing public health issues related to opioids. That bill has now received royal assent, which is something all members in the House should celebrate.
This legislative response is one important part of our government's comprehensive approach to drug policy in Canada. Bill C-37 will simplify and streamline the application process for supervised consumption sites, clamp down on illegal pill presses, and extend the authority of border officers to inspect suspicious small packages coming into Canada, which is precisely the object of what this private member's bill tries to address.
In relation to this last point, extending the inspection powers of the CBSA officers is important, because one standard-sized envelope can contain 30 grams of fentanyl, potent enough to cause 15,000 overdoses. These numbers will increase exponentially where the substance in question is carfentanil.
In addition, our government is also investing over $100 million to support the new Canadian drugs and substances strategy. This is in addition to $10 million in emergency support that the federal government has provided to the province of British Columbia to assist in responding to the overwhelming number of overdoses.
While the private member's bill is well intentioned, its objectives will not be accomplished through the provisions set out in it. This is for all the reasons I have stated in my remarks. I therefore encourage all members to vote this private member's bill down and continue to support all the good work our government is doing with regard to controlled substances.